I first discovered Lori McKenna in maybe little of an unusual way: while you may only know Mandy Moore as an actress, or have a vague memory of her limited success in the UK as a teen pop singer in the late ’90s and early ’00s, she’s really turned into something pretty great musically. Her last four albums have been strong, Americana leaning records; with 2003’s ‘Coverage’ she covered songs from her heroes, with the likes of Joni Mitchell, John Hiatt, The Waterboys and Joan Armatrading amongst those in the mix. In 2007 she released ‘Wild Hope’ which saw writing collaborations with The Weepies, Rachel Yamagata, and yes, McKenna. This was a little after the time McKenna started to gain some mainstream success, but this was the first place I picked up on McKenna’s amazing writing talents, and then went hunting for her solo material.
During the last decade, Massachusetts resident McKenna has become the go-to songwriter for Nashville to call upon when they need the undefinable touch of something special. For McKenna, the everyday things are those which create the magic within her songs – be it something as simple as a kitchen kiss shared between decades long partners, or the devastation of losing a loved one – she always adds a unique sparkle that makes the ordinary sound extraordinary.
Below is a list of ten of my favourite songs she’s worked on; some recorded by herself, some by others, and in some cases, both.
10. My Loves Follows You Where You Go
Alison Krauss and Union Station recorded this track, co-written by McKenna, Barry Dean and Liz Rose, for their 2011 album ‘Paper Airplane’. It’s a jaunty sounding bluegrass crowd-pleaser when recorded by Krauss, and it’s really interesting to contrast how the same song feels in McKenna’s hands, becoming more of a soulful folk standard.
9. Track Record
Surprisingly for a Nashville heavyweight, 2019’s ‘Wildcard’ is the first time Miranda Lambert has collaborated with McKenna and her fellow ‘Love Junkies’ (the nickname for the songwriting team she makes up with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose), and out of those four co-writes, ‘Track Record’ is the most fun, taking on Lambert’s tabloid reputation as a serial romantic: “I got a track record, a past that’s checkered / As the floor at the diner on Main Street.”
8. Girl Crush
This song was a big turning point in McKenna’s career: it was the first major hit she had as part of the ‘Love Junkies’, and it was big for the career of performers Little Big Town too, becoming their biggest selling single with over 2.5 million copies shifted. The lyrics are clever, and the title – not alluding to what you might initially assume – definitely raised a few eyebrows in more conservative country music circles.
7. Grocery Store
Pistol Annie’s member Angaleena Presley released this one co-written by McKenna on her 2014 album ‘American Middle Class’. It’s the basic story of standing in line at a grocery store, but as always, the little details that have been observed and picked up on really make it: “Standing in line at the grocery store / It’s February, as cold as it gets / There’s a little girl in front of me with no coat on / Her momma’s buying tampons and cigarettes.”
6. Leaving This Life
This one is deeply personal for McKenna, who lost her mother at an early age, and the lyrics are crushingly devastating in their relatable intimacy: “I am six years old in the back of my mother’s car / And I will be seven in December / She will be gone by the beginning of next spring / And I will be left to remember.”
5. Happy People
This was a co-write between McKenna and Hailey Whitters, initially recorded by Little Big Town and released as the second single from their 2017 album ‘The Breaker’. McKenna went on to record her own version on 2018’s ‘The Tree’, and Whitters included her own take on it from 2020’s excellent ‘The Dream’; it’s really fun to contrast the versions, but it’s generally just a great song. “Happy people don’t fail / Happy people just learn / Don’t think they’re above the push and shove / Just wait their turn,” are words to live by.
4. Janice at the Hotel Bar
This was another co-write by McKenna and Whitters, who recorded this one for her recently released ‘The Dream’. It’s the story of the kind of woman we’ve all met – geographic location irrelevant – and the kind of sage life advice she offers (usually whether you asked for it or not): “Stay off the pills / But get on the pill if you ain’t ready to start a family / And pay all your bills / But give some away, all that money won’t make you happy.”
3. Arms of a Lion
Songwriter and performer Heather Morgan released her debut album ‘Borrowed Heart’ in 2018, and it contains this collaboration written with McKenna which is simply kind of beautiful: “Oh I laid down in the arms of a lion / My defenceless heart gave in without even trying / I just closed my eyes and I laid down / In the arms of a lion.” McKenna features doing background harmonies here too, which are a lovely added touch.
2. Three Kids No Husband
This song is full of great lines, but in two particularly, we get such a vivid picture of a person: “She smokes a cigarette out by the loading dock / And tries not to pick the polish off her nails.” McKenna wrote this song with Brandy Clark, who initially released it in 2013 on her debut album ‘12 Stories’, but also McKenna released her own recording the following year. Clark discussed in an interview the magic touch McKenna tends to add to things, in this case by suggesting the phrase “hair net job”, something Clark would never have thought of, but those two words really do add to the image.
(McKenna’s recording is weirdly nowhere to be found on YouTube, but you can stream it on Spotify here.)
1. American Revolver
I love a murder ballad, but even more when it’s told from a female perspective, and this one is so good I just had to choose it as number one. “She’s hoping she’ll know what to do / With a 6 shot 22 / When the only one who’s innocent is cold blue steel / For the first time someone’s listening to how she feels,” sings McKenna, channelling a woman who plainly can’t take it anymore.